Thursday, January 28, 2010
Marriage Equality Activist on the Challenges Ahead
interview by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Fernando Lopez was one of the many activists who had been working hard for marriage equality for same-sex couples long before Proposition 8, California’s statewide initiative banning it, passed in November 2008. But, like a lot of the people involved in that issue, he became far more visible afterwards. It wasn’t from leading huge street demonstrations against the initiative and, later, against the California Supreme Court for upholding its constitutionality. It was from a much more basic, long-range strategy he pursued on behalf of the local chapter of Marriage Equality USA: just going out and talking to people about the issue.
Crucial to Lopez’s strategy was getting the Queer community and its activists out of their comfort zone and having them directly, albeit politely, confront the opponents of marriage equality where they live and shop: in the outlying areas of North, East and South San Diego County. He recruited volunteers to canvass in shopping centers — and the program proved liberating and empowering for the volunteers as well as enlightening to the people to whom they spoke. Veteran community activist Wendy Sue Biegeleisen boasted at a marriage equality meeting at the Center that she’d been intimidated by the idea, but once she’d done it she’d had a wonderful time and she urged everyone in the room to volunteer for Lopez’s canvass.
Lopez is working on expanding the street canvass into door-to-door campaigning and other ways of directly reaching individuals well before the heat of another election and another initiative on the issue. He spoke with Zenger’s in mid-January to talk about his personal background — including a youthful marriage and a bitter breakup —his analysis of what’s gone wrong with marriage equality efforts in general and the No on 8 campaign in particular, and his ideas on how to fight for marriage equality in the future.
Zenger’s: Why don’t we start with a little about your background, and how you got involved in all of this?
Fernando Lopez: I started doing some LGBT [Queer] volunteer work when I was in high school, and then in college, just with the student groups. I was married fairly young. I got married when I was 19 and he was 21. At the time we really didn’t think a marriage license was important. It was just a piece of paper, and what was more important was the spiritual commitment that we made to each other, and our love.
Then, as we tried to commingle our lives, we realized all the obstacles that were in place for Gay people that weren’t there for heterosexuals, simple things like putting each other on our car insurance and our health insurance, and just changing bank accounts. I was a homemaker at the time, and so a lot of my time was dedicated to fighting the insurance companies and fighting his employer in trying to get equal insurance benefits.
Zenger’s: When you said you were “married,” what did that mean — simply that you were together and had a commitment; you had a ceremony; or you actually had an opportunity to make it legal?
Lopez: Well, it wasn’t legal at the time. This was 2001, so there was nowhere where same-sex marriage was legal. But as far as we were concerned, we dated, we got engaged, there were rings, there was a proposal and a marriage. We took it very seriously, as seriously as any other couple would take a marriage, and we referred to each other as married — and as husbands, husband and husband.
A lot of people questioned us at the time: “Why are you saying you’re married? You’re not married. It’s not legal.” We said, “It doesn’t matter if it’s legal. It’s a spiritual thing, and religiously you can’t ban our religious right to get married.” So as far as we were concerned, we were. I think that viewpoint really helped us in a lot of the arguments we were making to the employers.
Later there was a point where I was working, and my husband had changed jobs, so he didn’t have health insurance and I did. I was trying to get him on my health insurance, and one of the only reasons I started working for Disney — actually the only reason I took the job — was because they offered same-sex domestic partner benefits.
But once I got there, it turned out you had to be living together a certain period of time — I think it was like a year or two —and you had to fill out all this extra paperwork. I pushed Disney and said, “Why? If I were [part of] a heterosexual newlywed couple, I wouldn’t have to prove that I lived with this person for two years of my life, and that we shared a residence and bills and whatnot. It would just be check a box and you’re married.”
They don’t ask you to bring your marriage license, but they ask you to bring your domestic partnership paperwork. And so I was fighting that, while at that time when my husband didn’t have health insurance, he became ill and kept complaining about a pain in his side. It was getting worse and worse and worse. I kept encouraging him to go to the hospital, and he didn’t want to because he was afraid of the medical costs. Finally he just started the fact that he was in pain from me, because he didn’t want me to worry.
Then I get a call that he’d collapsed at work, and so I got over there and I rushed him to the emergency room. He was unconscious, and the hospital — which was UCSD Thornton Medical Center [in La Jolla], and this was 2002 —wouldn’t let me in. They said, “Well, you’re a legal stranger, you have no right to be in that room,” and I said, “I know his medical history. You can’t give him this medication.” I was screaming, and finally I argued my way in
While I was there they gave him medicine that he was allergic to. It stopped his breathing. They gave him unnecessary surgery. He was unconscious for five days, and for five days I stayed by his side. At that time I was still working with Disney, and they almost fired me from my job. They made me come back to work while my husband was in the hospital. Had we been married I could have taken leave for that, but that wasn’t available for me at the time. So I almost lost my job over my husband being sick, and just the whole situation was so insane and emotionally draining — and very eye-opening.
That really intense situation was the catalyst that made me want to do more. So I started getting more involved in helping other people fight their insurance companies, and fight their employers, in order to get same-sex health insurance benefits. I was being active that way on my own, and then in 2004, when [San Francisco mayor] Gavin Newsom started with the marriages on February 12, on Freedom to Marry Day, and they were lsaying, “Oh, it’s legal, and you can actually get married,” my husband and I looked at each other and we knew we just wanted to do it.
So we looked at each other, we grabbed our suits and we jumped in the car. We grabbed our best friend and his parents, and we drove all the way up to San Francisco. We waited in line all night, and we were one of only 42 new couples that were married that day. We drove up on Valentine’s Day, so we got there on the 15th and were married on the 15th. And it was such a wonderful feeling. It was like, “Oh, my God, this is real. We finally have it.” Somehow that piece of paper made sense, once it was in my hand, and I just thought to myself, “God, I just want everybody to be able to feel what this feels like.”
That’s when an organization called Marriage Equality USA approached me and said, “Hey, you’re doing all this really great work. Would you like to come in and volunteer with us, and get involved and do some volunteer work?” At first I thought, “No, I don’t really want to be tied to an organization. I just want to do this work.” They finally convinced me. I went and I did some media stuff for them. My husband and I would do some media relations stuff, and then I just did some data entry, really simple things for them.
The next thing I knew I was their events coordinator, and then I was the chapter leader, and then they merged temporarily with Equality California and I was the regional field director. And then I was a state director for California, and now I’m on the national board of directors and it’s been kind of a whirlwind of activism for the last six years.
Zenger’s: What’s your marital status now?
Lopez: My ex-husband and I separated three years ago, in March, so I’m divorced, single. That was another challenge, once we were divorced, in separating and trying to get the dissolution of our domestic partnership. The divorce was quite acrimonious, and the lawyers that I talked to really didn’t want to touch it. The ones that would cautioned me that the expenses would be so exorbitant that what I would get out of it wouldn’t really be worth it in the long run for the amount of time it would take, and the cost. So I opted to draft the paperwork myself, and we dissolved the domestic partnership through a notary. I essentially left without my life savings.
Zenger’s: It sounds like an object lesson for anybody, straight or Gay, not to marry too soon. My immediate thought is, “Nineteen and 21? You didn’t date for a while, you didn’t sow your wild oats — that sounds like a mistake, whatever your sexual orientation.”
Lopez: Well, as difficult as the divorce was, I did get a lot out of the experience of being married. And I wouldn’t change it. Looking back, I really cherish the experience. I loved him very dearly, and I know that he loved me very dearly. Sometimes things go wrong and people change, but I definitely wouldn’t sacrifice the experience for anything. I loved my husband very much. I never thought I would be a divorcé at 25. It wasn’t in the plan, you know.
Zenger’s: There’s a confusing number of organizations dealing with this issue, most of which seem to have the words “marriage,” “equality” or both in their names. Could you explain for our readers which organization is which, and which ones you are part of?
Lopez: I am part of Marriage Equality USA, and I have been since 2004. They are the national grass-roots, chapter-based organization that has done long-standing work in the field. Their chapters are broken down by state, and then broken down further by county to allow for greater investment and involvement in what that community says and feels like. It’s very much of a bottom-up organization rather than a top-down organization, so the individual chapters dictate the direction of the organization on the local level, and then collectively on a statewide and national level.
Then you have organizations like the HRC (Human Rights Campaign), which everybody knows is the federal rights and lobby organization. You have Equality California, which has a history of amazingly successful lobby and legislation work here in the state of California. Marriage Equality and Equality California were partners for a time in order to pass the marriage bill two times through the legislature, and that was a part of that merger and, later, separation.
I know there was a report that came out post-Proposition 8 that said something like 96 or 98 — I can’t remember the the exact number — different organizations were formed after the passage of Proposition 8 in an upswell of grass-roots response to what had happened. Locally, I think the two most notable ones have been the San Diego Equality Campaign, which was comprised of seven members of the community who took on a leadership role for that organization and partnered with other organizations to have the different marches and things. We partnered with them to have a few of the larger marches as well.
San Diego Alliance for Marriage Equality [SAME] is one of the other organizations formed after Proposition 8, and they’re still very active in doing a lot of the visibility work here in the community. I haven’t really heard too much from the San Diego Equality Campaign, but the San Diego Alliance for Marriage Equality is still very active in the visibility aspect of engagement for the marriage equality issue in San Diego.
The other organization that people probably didn’t hear about before the 2008 elections is the Courage Campaign. They saw a huge surge in growth. I guess they’re somewhere in the middle: their origins were more in an on-line progressive organizing capacity. While they are kind of Queer-slanted, they are not necessarily a Queer organization. They are a progressive organization that definitely takes on Queer issues, and they have had some field efforts across the state as well with regards to the marriage issue.
All of these organizations partner together for different projects, events and field programs. Vote for Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force or the L.A. Center, Marriage Equality USA, Equality California and the Courage Campaign have all partnered together to accomplish a lot of field work over the last year with regards to ID’ing voters and persuasion work. There’s been a lot of collaboration between those several organizations — and more, I’m sure.
Zenger’s: That’s another way in which it gets confusing. Not only that there are so many organizations, but there are so many people who are involved in more than one. So sometimes it really is difficult to tell the players without a score card.
Lopez: You have people who sitting on the board, or the chair, or the regional contact for these different organizations. I’m Marriage Equality USA. That’s my hat. I sit on the Community Leadership Council, which is a great venue San Diego has for collaboration between the Gay groups here in San Diego. Other than that, I stay involved and connected with other organizations, but I stay pretty focused on the marriage equality issue.
Zenger’s: Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear: to 2008, when you had the State Supreme Court decision and then the Proposition 8 campaign and our defeat at the polls. How did that make you feel personally, riding that roller coaster? With your various involvements, what was your role in that campaign, and how did you feel about it personally?
Lopez: The first part of that really was the Decline to Sign campaign, which started in early 2008 when we were trying to prevent the initiative from even qualifying on the ballot. At that point, I was one of the co-regional organizers. I was still with Marriage Equality USA, but I was hired on by the campaign to help prevent the initiative [from qualifying]. As heartbreaking as it was to see all this money pour in, it was one of the most exciting campaigns I’ve ever been on, because you were so actively engaged in dealing with the opposition on the field, trying to deflect signatures and educate the public.
We were all over the county, in 286 different locations. The people who worked on that campaign really developed a great bond, and some of the best friendships I still have came out of that campaign. It was so devastating that it still qualified, because all of us had worked so hard, but at the same time we knew that the goal wasn’t necessary to defeat it or to stop it, but to build a really empowered team of volunteers and leaders that would take us forward to the next step of the campaign.
From there I was asked by the campaign to go to Los Angeles, and then subsequently to San Francisco. But in the writing of the field plan for the No on 8 campaign, and the discussion of how the field operations were going to be, I grew increasingly upset and I actually quit the campaign two weeks into being involved in it, just because I was so flabbergasted at the way the field program were being run.
I know a lot of people really focused on the commercials and the ads, but for me I’m a field person. And being a field person, I was just disturbed with the way the field program was being run, and a lot of the decisions that were being made. So, as painful as it was for me, I left the campaign. I still wanted people to work on the campaign, so I was really quiet about it. You’re actually the first person I’ve told in any kind of public way that this is how it went down, because I still wanted people to continue to work. But it was very difficult for me to leave a group of really wonderful organizers for what to me was a very personal issue, and I couldn’t be a part of that.
Zenger’s: What exactly was wrong with the field operation, in your opinion? What was the problem?
Lopez: There were so many organizations who were reaching out to the campaign to help in their various capacities, and they were all dismissed or told no: organizations that had scope in so many other counties. You have a state with 42 million people, and you had a campaign with offices in three cities. That in itself was an immediate red flag.
Also, we were only going to be on the phone, and we were only going to do voter ID and very little persuasion work. We thought we were going to win with voter turnout, and we were only targeting a small numbr of people. We did absolutely no door work, no street canvassing, no door canvassing, in the idea that we want everyone to be on the phones. But the fact is not everyone wants to be on the phones. You have to give people options and choices. “If you build it, they will come.” If you had had a more comprehensive campaign, more people would have stepped up to the plate to be part of it.
There were cities and counties and regions who were begging for field operations. Field has a relatively low cost compared to media, and they could have accomplished so much more than they did. And When I heard how we were going to approach voters, and what we were expected to say, I was just so upset.
Also, before the first signs ever went out, I said, “Are you kidding me? It says, ‘Yes on Equality,’ or what was it, ‘Equality for All,’ and it’s a green check mark?” Just from a graphic design standpoint — which is what I went to school for, initially — you can’t have blue and green on a sign when you’re asking people to vote no. Equality for All — yes, of course, Equality for All: vote no on Equality for All. That doesn’t make any sense. It’s horrible messaging. Graphically, it’s wrong. As you’ll note, in the last few weeks the campaign suddenly, finally figured it out and the green check mark became a red X. My initial recommendation had been for the color red to be used in some kind of negative fashion.
So I left that campaign, watching from the outside but still helping our chapters from Marriage Equality USA stay involved in those rural areas that weren’t getting support from the campaign. In the end I hosted a phone bank and did some stuff for the campaign, but I couldn’t be a part of it in the same way. I just watched the numbers drop and drop and drop and drop, and it just hurt so much every day to see.
Before the campaign, San Diego had moved almost 30 percentage points since Prop. 22, and then somehow we lost 14 percentage points in just a matter of months. To have put in so much work over all those years, and then to see it all just melt away, was disturbing. It was just devastating, really. Not disturbing — devastating.
Zenger’s: The $64,000 question: do you think, if your suggestions would have been followed, the outcome would have been different?
Lopez: I think it would have helped. We ended up having no get-out-the-vote program, either. If we had had all of that and a get-out-the-vote program, it would have been significantly different. I’m not an advertising person. I don’t work in the media that way, so I can’t tell you how effective those ads were, or weren’t, in changing hearts and minds. I know it had a lot more to do with the work that was done in the churches, but I think it definitely would have made a difference. I think if we had actually managed to turn out the vote and had some level of GOTV effort, we could have won with that.
Zenger’s: One point Sherry Wolf made in her recent book, Sexuality and Socialism, and her talk here last December was that the campaign in Maine did a lot of the things people like you recommended for the campaign in California — and we still lost by about the same margin. It might be that this simply is a less tractable issue, or that the other side just has too good an outreach program and too many captive audiences every Sunday morning for us to be able to counter them.
Lopez: Maine is a very different animal from California. Maine doesn’t have the stronghold of churches that California does. Maine isn’t as religious. There isn’t such a high level of religiosity as there is in California. But they also don’t have the same kinds of urban centers that California does, and so the Gay community isn’t necessarily as solid there, either. Organizing in that kind of community is so much more difficult. It’s more of a drive-and-knock situation than a walk-and-knock when you’re talking about door.
I think they did a great job in Maine. I don’t know what could have helped to make that different, but Maine did learn from a lot of the mistakes [in California] and they did the best that they could do. Maybe they’re just not there yet. You’re not going to win them all.
Zenger’s: You look at the entire country, and in every location where this has been on the ballot, it has been voted down. There was one state where we were able to beat back an anti-marriage initiative, but it passed in the next election.
Lopez: Right, and in Arizona, the reason it failed the first time was because they also had a ban on domestic partnerships, and domestic partnerships were tied to senior citizens that helped to kill that initiative. It wasn’t the Gay community. They helped to run that campaign, but the difference in that vote was the first one was damaging to senior citizens, who vote more, and senior citizens didn’t want their rights taken away. In the following election cycle, our opposition got smart and took off the provision to abolish domestic partnerships, and so senior citizens were O.K. with voting that up.
Zenger’s: The question is, leaving aside the morality or the equity of allowing people to vote on other people’s civil rights, why is that? Why are we zero for 37, or whatever it is? If this is supposedly an issue whose time has come, blah blah blah, why can’t we persuade a majority of our fellow citizens to support our rights?
Lopez: I think the country just isn’t as progressive as we would like it to be, and there’s still a stigma. Gay people still carry this negative stigma, and we still see harassment in the workplace, discrimination. Homophobia is an expected part of daily life, and until we are able to change that, I don’t think we’re going to win a lot of things by popular vote.
You look at a lot of other substantial progressions that we’ve made in the civil rights movement, with the rights of women or of African-Americans and other minorities, in different parts of our history. At the time that they were won through the court system, we still would have voted them down had they come up for a popular vote. And in some places of the country, they still would fail if they came up for a popular vote.
It’s not like our side is the one putting it up to be voted on. It’s the opposition that is putting it up to be voted on, and we’re just fighting that off. We’re working through the courts, we’re working through the legislature, and I think that’s a good approach. I’ve heard some people argue, “Well, then, why are we even fighting them off at the ballot?” The answer is we can’t just let people stand there and spout lies, and spread lies and misinformation about us.
We have to do our best to answer those, because if we don’t, it just feeds the homophobia. It feeds the discrimination, and that’s what in turn feeds into hate crimes and loss of life in the LGBT community. So we have to be there to answer those challenges.
Zenger’s: Where did you get the idea for the canvassing in supermarkets and public places, the program you announced right after Proposition 8 passed?
Lopez: One of the things that we had done in the previous campaign, the Decline to Sign campaign, was we went out to those places all over the county where our opposition was and directly engaged our opposition. That type of engagement didn’t continue in the No on 8 campaign, but I knew it had to. So I and a few people that had done that kind of work before all got together and said, “It doesn’t stop here. We can’t wait for this to go to the courts. We can’t wait for the court to rule. We need to continue organizing. We’ve been organizing for years before. The campaign’s over, but the job’s not done. We’ve done a great job carrying the city, but let’s continue going into these more rural areas.”
And so we did. We canvassed up in North County, and in Lemon Grove, in Spring Valley and Grossmont and El Cajon and Chula Vista, National City and San Ysidro. We went everywhere, and we’re still going out every weekend and canvassing in those areas, because whether or not this goes to the courts and we win that way; whether or not it goes back to a ballot initiative; no matter how we inevitably win this, that key is the education and connecting people to the realities of what this discrimination is, and putting a human face on this issue.
Asking someone in Otay if they support same-sex marriage is a conversation that wouldn’t have happened had we not been there. They say, “Oh, well, things will change over time, and eventually we’ll win same-sex marriage and marriage equality.” It’s not time that changes things; it’s conversation that changes things, and so we wanted to ensure that those conversations were happening rapidly.
Zenger’s: I’m not sure that this will change over time. It will change if we put in the work to make it change.
Lopez: Exactly. So now we’re running those street canvass projects — that’s what we call them, “street canvass outreach” —here in San Diego and also in the Inland Empire. There are a few other counties across the state that are going to be starting that, if they haven’t already.
We also partnered with the Courage Campaign and a few other organizations — including Equality California — here locally to look at persuasion at the door, which is having conversations specifically with our opposition and really breaking down the barriers in logic that lead to them thinking about discrimination, and where they’re really coming from at the core. We’ve had a very high rate of persuasion, better than we had expected. That work is being done by Courage Campaign and Equality California all over the state, directly engaging our opposition at the door.
Then we also have phone banks where we do some volunteer recruitment, so we ensure that we can keep staffing our canvasses. But we’re not doing persuasion over the phone right now. That’s something that may come on later as we do re-contacts by phone with people we’ve talked to at the door or on the street.
Zenger’s: So far, what’s been the result? What are some of the kinds of conversations you’ve had approaching people on this issue?
Lopez: Well, there was definitely a large amount of voter confusion. People voted yes when they should have been voting no, or whatever. They voted the wrong way over, “Yes, I want same-sex marriage, but — so I vote yes?”
The other level of voter confusion was that they whole-heartedly believed what the commercials were telling them. They didn’t think they were voting on same-sex marriage. They thought they were voting on whether or not Gay marriage would be taught in schools. Or people thought they were voting on whether or not churches should lose their tax-exempt status. They didn’t even think it had anything to do with Gay people.
So we’re just clearing up that and saying, “No, it was not about that. It was about people taking away the freedom to marry for Gay and Lesbian couples.” Then, with a lot of people, there’s that “aha!” moment where they realize they were just bamboozled.
The three main issues people are working through are the issue of children, still, being taught what same-sex marriage is; matters of faith, and why they believe they can’t support it because of their own faith; and just the word, like just kind of a very general thought of, “Why do you have to have the word ‘marriage’?”
Once you start asking those questions, anywhere from one-fifth to one-third of the people that we’re talking to suddenly realize they had it wrong, and they never really put enough thought in it to realize what they were doing, and whose lives they were actually affecting. It takes that real one-on-one conversation, that face-to-face interaction, to make that change happen.
You can’t have an argument with your television — although I’ve seen people try. Every time I flip the channel and Glenn Beck is on it, I scream. I may have a few choice words, but that doesn’t get me very far.
Zenger’s: I’ve seen an estimate that about 25 percent of California’s Gay voters voted for Proposition 8.
Lopez: Really? Where was that statistic? I missed that one. I know they exist. I definitely know that they’re out there. They’re some of the hardest people to talk to — just emotionally, for me. It’s so hard for me to wrap my head around why there are still members of our community that are not for what I believe, and most people in our community believe, is an equal-rights issue. The statistic I saw was closer to 2 percent. It wasn’t 25 percent, but what I saw was 2 percent. I think my heart might split in two if I knew for a fact it was 25 percent!
Zenger’s: One explanation was offered by Steve Yuhas on his talk show, where he said, “Just because I’m Gay doesn’t mean I’ve lost all morality!”
Lopez: To me, that type of thinking is exactly the type of internalized homophobia that is very real in our society, in our community. As I said earlier, homophobia is an expected part of daily life. That is what the translation is to our community.
One of the most moving moments for me during the Prop. 8 campaign was there was this young man who came to volunteer. We always do these team check-ins at the beginning and ask, “What’s your name? How do you identify,” and, in one or two words, “Why are you here today?” And, you know, people say, “Oh, I’m here for love,” or, “I’m here to fight Prop. 8.” They give one or two words.
This kid said, “Hi, my name is so-and-so, and I’m 16” — I didn’t think he was 16, but that’s what he said. “I’m 16, and I’m here because I never thought I could get married. And today, all of a sudden, I can. And that changes everything for me. I didn’t think I could have a husband and kids and a white picket fence, and so I never thought about it. I never thought my life could go in that direction, and so I never worried about it. And now all of a sudden, my whole life is different. And my whole life today can be whatever I want it to be. I didn’t know that, and now I do. And now I have to rethink everything.”
I almost started crying when he was talking, because I don’t know if he realized the significance of what he was saying, but that’s the reality. That’s why we do this, because it’s so true. Our youth grow up in this environment where they’re told that they’re less than; where they’re told that they can’t have these things. So one day to wake up, and all of a sudden you can, is life-changing.
If you grow up your whole life and you’re told that as a Gay man you’re going to be promiscuous and do drugs and drink all the time and get AIDS, and you don’t have any positive role models to show you otherwise, then that’s what you’re going to grow up to do. And then, all of a sudden, you get the message, “Yes, you can get married. You can have kids. You can go to church, to an open, affirming church, and be loved. You can be an atheist. You can be a Republican and still be for Gay rights.” Those things didn’t exist before for our community. We were so hidden, and now all that’s slowly starting to dissolve away, and our youth are growing up in a different environment where they can be whatever they want.
Zenger’s: So do you think the campaign in California should take the marriage equality issue, from our side, back to the ballot? And if so, when?
Lopez: Should we? It would be really great to try. That’s a really great question. I guess I find myself still asking, “Should we?” It’s worth a shot. We’ve never tried it this way. It’s never been us on the offensive, so it would be nice to see what it looks like from our side to throw an offensive campaign.
As for timing, I think we’re a little late in the game for 2010. I just don’t see the signatures happening in time. I don’t think that we’re prepared enough at this point. I think we could have been. I think there might have been a better opportunity earlier on — but we really almost needed last year to grieve. I think a lot of people needed that grieving process, and it was very difficult to get the community through that grieving process and to come back together and collaborate.
I don’t really see it happening in 2010, so I think our next best chance after that would be 2012. I hope we can get it together. I think it would make a very powerful statement if we were able to bring it together, bring it in, unite and just knock it out of the ballpark. Wow, I used a sports reference! That never happens.
Zenger’s: Not just on this issue but on so many other things, it seems like our side — and I don’t just mean Queer people, I mean progressives and the Left in general — we seem to sleep a lot. They are always awake. The Right was on top of Obama from the get-go, and they’ve managed still to control the political agenda in this country even after losing Congress and losing the Presidency.
Lopez: That’s quite amazing, isn’t it?
Zenger’s: They just never give up. They never stop. It might be that they’re the ones who have the messianic, utopian vision the Left used to have in the teens and in the 1930’s: the sense that they are remaking the world in their direction. So my question is, what is it going to take to get us to have that same level of commitment, that same level of devotion, that same level of dedication, to where we don’t need to take off, we don’t need these grieving periods, that we can be in the trenches right after we’ve taken the hit? What is it going to take?
Lopez: I think you hit it when you said you look at the Right and they have this singular, unified vision of what it is that they want. You look at the ultra-conservative Fundies: they want something, and they spin that message in order to control that result. Then you look at the Left; and inherently, by what we are as the Left, is so many things. So, while they can focus on one issue at a time, we are focusing on this complete fractured rainbow of an array of issues that runs the gamut.
We are very diverse in the Left, and that diversity sometimes works to our detriment. But if we didn’t have it, we wouldn’t be the Left! And somewhere in that, hopefully we can find that unifying place. We definitely haven’t found it yet, but we keep trying. I mean, kudos to the person who finds that one unifying linchpin, right?
Zenger’s: Any comments on the current court case in San Francisco, Perry v. Schwarzenegger?
Lopez: I didn’t see it coming. I guess a lot of people didn’t see it coming, so there was a little bit of shock to the community. But I’m very hopeful at least with what can happen in the Ninth Circuit. The case is solid. The witnesses for our side are fantastic. The lawyers have a great track record. II know some of the lawyers that are involved in the case, and I know how dedicated they are and how hard they have been working, and are continuing to work. Our own Mayor, Jerry Sanders, testified, and I think that’s fantastic to have a Republican mayor of a conservative city testify in favor of same-sex marriage. It means we’ve come pretty far. So I’m hopeful.
I don’t know how hopeful I am outside of the Ninth Circuit, but if the case is strong and the early rulings are solid, they’ll build a strong case for past precedent in the court system. Really, the result of this at the end of the day has potential to have sweeping change for Gay rights in this country. It could go so far as to immigration and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and employment rights, and marriage and adoption. This single court case can really be the game-changer for Gay rights.
I’m very disappointed in the U.S. Supreme Court for saying that this can’t be televised and this can’t be on YouTube. I think that’s blatant disregard for the openness of the courts. I think the arguments on both sides should have been transparent. And the opposition, our opposition knew exactly what they were doing when they pushed for that. They know that their arguments don’t stand water. If you’re under oath and you’re forced to tell the truth about why you think Gay people can’t get married, and do that from a logical standpoint, that’s the last thing they wanted: to have those arguments on television for either side. Because theirs just don’t cut it when compared to ours, if they’re forced to tell the truth.
Zenger’s: My initial reaction is believing that an overwhelmingly Republican court is going to go this far away from popular opinion on such an explosive issue is like believing in Santa Claus. But let’s say it does. Let’s say it goes all the way to the Supreme Court and we squeeze out a 5-4 decision that same-sex marriage is legal throughout the United States. How do you think that’s going to galvanize people, both on our side and on the opposition? Aren’t you going to end up with essentially a political civil war that is going to make the abortion debate look polite by comparison?
Lopez: Probably. That’s probably a really good way of putting it. It’s going to be the “activist judges” all over again. It’s going to be a media maelstrom. I’m almost concerned that our side will be celebrating and rejoicing, while the other side will be galvanizing and angered.
Of course, if the courts rule in our favor it’s an immediate drop in opinion polls. Every time that a court rules in our favor, we drop; and every time we lose at the ballot box, opinion polls go up because people feel sorry for us. So I think you’ll see backlash. I think you’ll see a sudden increase in hate crime. And I think you’ll see a very high stress level come from that, just in the amount of vitriol that will be spit by our opposition. You’ve got a lot of really angry, hateful radicals out there that may take things to an extreme. I guess that would be my biggest fear.
And you mentioned the abortion debate, or women’s health and women’s choice debate. There are a lot of similarities, and a lot of differences, but that debate was “settled” through a court case. But that debate is ongoing, and we’ve seen the deadly results of the conservative extremism that’s come out of that. So I’m almost fearful of what that’s going to look like if we are given our civil rights through a similar court ruling. And how long is that argument going to go on for afterwards?
Zenger’s: The obvious avenue for that backlash would be a federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage throughout the country.
Lopez: Which I don’t see passing — unless we could have some sweeping loss from the liberal side — but they could try. Laws are put in place essentially to effect an even playing ground for our citizens. But it doesn’t necessarily dictate to those citizens how to operate in day-to-day life. So while we might have equal rights for African-Americans or equal rights for women, that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily treated that way in the general public, day to day. That varies by region.
The same thing will be true for the Gay community. There’s going to be parts of the country where you can go and Gay people still won’t be overly welcome. Then you’ll have San Francisco and Hillcrest to come and be a part of. It may change the laws and legal standing, but ultimately what is going to make the difference at the end of the day, again, goes back to that education work and how we’re seen by the general population, and treated.
We still have a Planned Parenthood, we still have an NAACP, and we’re probably still going to have a Marriage Equality USA once we have same-sex marriage rights. I don’t see the HRC going anywhere after we win sweeping federal rights.
Zenger’s: And there’s another question: do you think there might set in a kind of issue fatigue that might set in on both sides? We’re dealing with a major recession, possibly a depression. We’re dealing with global warming. We’ve got the health care crisis. We’ve still got foreign troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, and all over the world. We’ve still got a threat of terrorism, even if it’s gone down from 19 commandos who knew what they were doing hijacking four planes to one guy with a bomb in his underwear. Might people just tune out on both sides of this thing and say, “We’ve got so many real problems in this country, your struggle is just totally irrelevant”?
Lopez: There’s some of that already, with some people. But as long as people’s lives are being affected, and families are being torn apart, and people are dying, and children are separated from their families. I think those real issues, that are still happening every day — I mean, the person who’s fighting in Afghanistan, but their same-sex partner here in the States doesn’t have the right to claim their body? Those types of real issues are what keep that alive.
It’s never the quote-unquote “right time” to fight for civil rights. You look at the suffragists during World War I; people told them it wasn’t the “right time,” and they kept pressing on. I look back to them and think, “They had the right idea.” They weren’t willing to settle for anything less than equal rights, and kept talking while people cared — and didn’t care — and finally things turned and women got the right to vote.
I think it’s going to be very much the same for the Gay community here in the early 2000’s, the same as it was in the early 1900’s for them. We’ll get there, and hopefully we won’t bore people in the process. But there are still very real, compelling, life-changing issues that come along with marriage that affect people every day. And maybe some of us in the “Gay bubble” don’t feel that as much. But there are people out there that really do, and it’s their stories that are important and need to continue to be shared.